At his most pared-down, Matisyahu is “an American Hasidic Jewish reggae musician,” but the Brooklyn-based jam-rock rapper/singer formerly known as Matthew Paul Miller has something to offer discerning listeners who can get past the initial identity clusterfuck. Light is his third album, and it shows signs that Matisyahu is honing his very specific craft. For one, there’s less fake patois and more real rapping. There’s also far less of the outdated P.O.D.-style metal-dub (both genres bastardized) that marred 2006’s Youth. Once the shock of hearing Auto-Tune on the opener, “Smash Lies,” subsides, the track’s curious experimentalism and general bravado takes over. Skittering percussion, Middle Eastern strings, layered beatbox, and bass synth (courtesy of Stephen McGregor, son of reggae legend Freddie) make a hip-hop hotbed for showcasing Matisyahu’ strongest material yet. He fast-raps like Twista, slow-raps like Eyedea, lays down baritone overdubs, and keeps the singing to a tight, chant-like minimum. It seems like a revolution for Matisyahu, and it may well be, but it’s one that will unfortunately have to bear out on a different album.
There’s a lot more to get past on Light than the superficial details of Matisyahu’s taxonomy. The second song, “We Will Walk,” counters with bubbly café rap and a general Jack Johnson-ness. “One Day” is a corny slice of roots-reggae Pollyannaism—pure Velveeta, or whatever it is they smear on crackers where Desmond Dekker’s progeny and actual Israelites frolic in harmony. “Escape” offers a halfway decent freestyle approximation over decent dub, but the epic radio-rock of “For You” sounds wholly misguided, and most everything else is tiring. Hope returns on the surprising closer, “Silence,” which rolls Bon Iver and Wyclef Jean into a minimal, worldly folk sung half in Yiddish. But like the former Fugees mastermind, Matisyahu carries the curse of burying his true brilliance in too much pop schlock.